Aida’s Grandmother: Life in ALZHIR

I. Introduction

70 years ago Kazakhstan was the place of exile and deportation for millions of Soviet people. There were 953 camps and colonies of the punishment system functioned throughout the country in the years of Stalin repressions. One of them is sadly known as Akmolinskiy camp for wives of traitors betrayed (ALZHIR from the Russian initials) the Fatherland was based in the village of Malinovka. That was the sole camp in the USSR, where about 20 thousand women – mothers, wives, daughters of the repressed were imprisoned (Elmann 2007, p. 668). My grandmother who spent more than ten years in ALZHIR, the elite of the Kazakhs, and many others like her survived because of the extremely strong desire to live, to hope, to love and make the Kazakh steppe independent, free, and to keep it for the next generation.

II. Background of labor camps

The command–administrative system leaded by Bolshevik communist party required to totally subordinate to the aims and system of Soviet time, no one had the permission to think, and talk differently (Rosefielde 1994, p1). Individuals, especially well educated people were proactive to establish their own views to be independent, free to think and protect the values they believed in, that means they were against for Politburo’s system. Such people were prosecuted and finally were killed and their relatives became the victims of repressions and deportations. 1932 – 33 years were marked by savage and extra-judicial repression period of time (Elmann 2007, p. 668). It led in 1932 – 33 to a quarter of a million people being charged by the OGPU and more than 200,000 sentences (normally of 5 – 10 years in the Gulag) of which more than 11,000 seem to have been death sentences.

“I was 21 year old new married, young woman and have just started my life with lovely person, we didn’t even had the honeymoon yet, when, suddenly, all my plans and dreams crashed, my husband was killed (after 10 years I knew) and I was repressed for 10 year sentence to ALZHIR, just because I was the wife of the enemy of the country,”

said Mrs. Balken Sultanova (interview 2005) the prisoner of ALZHIR. On July 3, 1937, Head of NKVD (Peoples’ Committee for Internal Affairs) of the Western Siberia Mr. Mironov and Peoples’ Commissar of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan Mr. Zalin simultaneously received an encoded telegram, which prescribed them to organize two concentration camps fenced with razor-wire and having advanced security and increased guards to exclude escapees. These facilities were not meant for assassins and thefts – they were meant for fragile women: wives, mothers, sisters… Of the two camps Kazakhstan ALZHIR was the biggest women’s colony where instead of three thousand prisoners twenty thousand were kept. The telegram was signed by the Head of GULAG Mr. Berman, but was initiated by Mr. Yezhov. Neither sickness, nor pregnancy or babies could prevent women from being kept here. Absurd, but even the former wives of the parricides were arrested. The authority thought that women shared points of view of their husbands, meaning they were potentially dangerous.

III. Extent of problems – living conditions in the labor camps

“Arrests were quite fast – there was no investigation held: a woman would not even have time to pack her belongings and say goodbye to her relatives, who in their turn were arrested later as well,” shared Mrs. Sultanova.  “Women in home slippers or light shoes on their feet stepped into the thick Akmola snowdrifts”. Prisoners worked in the gardens, took care of cattle. Also, they cut the reeds, worked in the forests and felled the trees to earn daily rate for food. Moreover, they worked in extremely difficult natural conditions because the temperature could fall to -50 º C (Zaitseva & Homburg 2005, p.57).

IV. Solution for problems – hope, love and help

“The daily rate of food was given according to how much you worked, 200 grams of bread and may be sometimes porridge. I was young and worked very hard and over made my daily standard that is why I survived. But, unfortunately many people were dying because of starvation and hard work,” said Mrs. Sultanova.

Also, another Gulag prisoner Hava Volovich in the article of Ruthchild (2000) said very horrific facts about the living conditions in labor camps:

You were allowed into the bathhouse once a month and given half a bowl of water: as for a laundry – forget it. Every puddle of rainwater was precious, and when they wanted to wash their clothes, women would carry their bowls around the camp and get their friends to piss in them, and then use the urine to wash a sweater or a skirt. (p.8)

Children of the parricides were sent to orphanages all over the huge country. Relatives or friends were purposefully divided. But even in the darkest time a human being is led by hope. Only the hope to see their children again helped those women not to break-down in ALZHIR. The hope to see and live again with their family made them survive in that difficult and savage time. “One day when we came after very difficult working day to our barracks, I started to recite the poem of the Alexander Pushkin about brave and hope,” said Mrs. Sultanova. “The jailer of our barrack stayed silently and than added: even we separated you from your family, high elite community and forced to hard work you are still morally unbreakable. I wonder at your power!”

V. Conclusion

To sum up, I would like to add Mrs. Sulatanova’s words: “Extremely strong desires to live made us alive and survive, because we were responsible for the future of the Kazakhs.” Nowadays when Kazakhstan is independent and a sovereign country and have the legal constitution about human rights, we lay our heads to our brave and really patriot hero ancestors. That is why every year on the 31st of May we remind the victims of political repressions and is called as the Memorial Day. The horrific memories of this time period lives not only in books, but also in the memories of the people who survived the Stalin’s terror up till nowadays. The cultural heritage of Kazakhs can be enriched not only with the help of books and Internet but also by accessing the primary sources-the survivors’ stories. History-is our future, for those who don’t know their past will never be successful in future. There is the old Kazakh proverb tells “Who don’t know his history, he is like the tree without roots”. Therefore, history should be treated as a treasure, for it is the only thing that will remain living through ages and will made the new generation of Kazakhstan be proud of their ancestors and be inspired to work and live for the well being of their country.

Works Cited

Ellman, M. (2007). Discussion article Stalin and the Soviet famine of 1932 – 33 revisited. Europe-Asia Studies. 4 (59), 663 – 693.

Rosefielde, S. (1994), Retreat from utopia: the reconfiguration of Russia Socialism. Atlantic Economic Journal. 2 (22), 1-12.

Ruthchild G. R, (2000) Heroes of our time. The women’s review of books. 6(17), 7-8.

Sultanova, B. (personal interview). 25 May. 2005.

Zaitseva E & Hamburg E, (2005). Catalytic chemistry under Stalin: science and scientists in times of repression. Ambix, 1(52), 45-65.

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    […] in finding out what their grandparents or great grandparents went through during the Soviet period. One of my students, Aida, had a grandmother who survived 10 years in ALZHIR,  Another student Laura’s grandfather survived 15 years in Siberia.  One Kazakh girl’s […]

  2. 2

    Dinara said,

    I am sad that it happened, especially in Kazakhstan. I totally agree with the Kazakh proverb about the tree without roots. We should know and remember our past, respect and take care of the people who suffered from that regime.


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